by Bishop John Henderson
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Greetings in the name of Jesus, our risen Lord and Saviour. His death, resurrection and ascension are our sure and certain hope in the ‘ups’ and the ‘downs’ of life. Wherever you are in that right now, you can be assured of his love and protection. He gave his life for you so that you might live with God eternally, and the events of this life cannot remove the hope we have in him.
In the meantime, we will go on living in this world, serving God and each other as best we can. As 1 Peter 1:3-7 reminds us:
‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.[i]
Government easing of restrictions
Our governments are now beginning to ease the restrictions that have kept us in our homes, away from physical interaction, for some weeks now. The results so far are encouraging. We have done well. Australia and New Zealand are well below global averages in rates of transmission, hospitalisations and deaths from the COVID-19 virus.
As we are constantly reminded, however, this is far from over. We remain at risk of a serious second wave of infections. The authorities are right to proceed carefully.
New Zealanders have stepped back to Alert Level 2. They are to ‘play it safe’ and maintain physical distancing. Australians are at Step 1 of the framework for a COVIDSafe Australia. States and territories are moving at different rates towards steps 2 and 3. Each step maintains the 1.5 metre distancing rule and stresses good hygiene. Restrictions are not yet over.
What is the LCA’s advice?
From the day we closed our worship and activity centres we knew that in opening them again we would need to proceed thoughtfully and gradually. We must now patiently work through that, steadily and with mutual love.
Our advice, therefore, is to proceed with care and caution, at a pace within government regulations and within which participants feel safe. Don’t rush back as though it’s all over and you can do things the way you did them before. You and your congregation might have learned new ways of connecting during this time. Are there now some things you could do differently?
Reopening worship is not one person’s decision, not even that of the pastor. You must work together, consult with each other, and, to paraphrase the education sector, ‘leave no-one behind’. Talk, listen, and pay special attention to those who are most vulnerable to this virus, or who live, care for or work with others who are. We will show true strength in the way we have compassion for others.
Also, consider your wider community. What’s happening in your suburb or town? What are other Christians and churches doing? How does what you do as a Lutheran church help or hinder, encourage or discourage them? How can we show that our faith and hope in Christ means that we care for all people?
So, in summary:
- It’s okay to go back into your worship spaces and other buildings as long as you stay within government guidelines. This will mean putting effort into planning, changes to physical arrangements, church cleaning, data collection, reporting, communication, and many other details. Be prepared to work out a solution for the unexpected situation you hadn’t thought of before.
- It’s also okay not to go back just yet but wait until the risk has reduced, restrictions are further eased, people are ready, and the burden of organising will be less onerous.
If we agree to recommence limited worship services, what must we do?
You first need to check what your state authorities require. Your District Office stands ready to help you with that. Some of our District leaders are in contact with government medical authorities, particularly in relation to the needs of churches.
Here is a basic list of the things you must do, remembering that in your situation you may also need to attend to additional things:[ii]
- Limit gatherings to the maximum number of persons permitted – the number of congregants in addition to those required to conduct the service.
- Adhere to the 1 person per 4 square metres rule.
- Observe and encourage physical distancing to maintain 1.5 metres between people.
- Facilitate good hygiene, including hand sanitizer at entrances and exits.
- Frequently clean and disinfect seating, fixtures, and other heavy-duty surfaces.
- Keep publicly accessible records of attendance, including names and contact details. [Download template]
If your congregation is live streaming or recording worship, the same restrictions apply.
These things are prohibited:
- Large, unrestricted public gatherings or worship services.
- Provision of food or catering, including refreshments or beverages at gatherings.
- Individuals who are feeling even mildly unwell are not to enter church buildings or attend face-to-face gatherings.
We advise that these limited services should be relatively short.
You will need time to plan properly. Consider things such as:
- How people will enter and leave the building – can you use different doors?
- Refraining from handshaking and hugging – how will you do that?
- How will you do that extra cleaning, including the toilets?
- How will you locate signage on and within the building advising people of safe and acceptable practices?
- How you will effectively manage the limited attendance – who gets to participate and who does not?
- You might want to hold more than one service per Sunday. If you do, how will you clean the church between services?
- How will you continue any live streaming or recording of services at the same time as facing the demands of organising limited face-to-face services?
Some congregations are well resourced for this planning, and others less so. We encourage you to support your neighbouring congregations as you all consider these questions and share resources – many of us will have the same questions.
Here is a link to a planning resource the National COVID-19 Coordinating Committee has provided for the business community. It may be a useful aid to your congregation as you think about the steps you need to take: Planning tool for reopening businesses.
The Commission on Worship is preparing prayers and a short liturgy for congregations returning to their worship spaces. These resources should be available soon.
What about Holy Communion?
This section is about Holy Communion during limited services in physical spaces. It is not about on-line communion, which we strongly discouraged in an earlier message.
You might already have proposals to offer Holy Communion under physical distancing rules. Remember that should be a decision of the community, and not just one or two people. Here we provide some general guidelines, which we stress are still to be tested with medical authorities:
- A basic ‘rule of thumb’ is to ask what precautions you would take to protect people if you were an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. You must exercise extreme caution. Protect your church from being a centre of infection.
- Always maintain the 1.5 metre rule.
- Have only one person handling the bread and the wine – both preparation and distribution. This will most likely be the pastor but might also be an elder or designated server. He or she must be virus free, and wear protection (face and hands) when handling the elements.
- Do not distribute the wine using the common cup. Disposable individual cups are best, unless you have the industrial equipment to properly sanitise glass cups.[iii]
- Think carefully about the distribution – will participants come separately to collect the elements, or will the pastor or server bring the elements to them individually? If participants collect the elements themselves, do not have the elements grouped together – separate them by 1.5 metres. Initially, as there will be no more than 10 communicants, this should be manageable. How will this work best in your space? How will you handle it when restrictions ease further and the number of communicants increases?
- It is okay if you choose not to have a communion service, recognising these are the early steps back.
- It is okay if people choose not to attend or to commune. No one should be pressured into doing something which they are not ready to do.
- Pastors – do not pressure your congregation into offering communion if they are not yet ready to do so.
- Congregations – do not pressure your pastor into offering communion if he is not yet ready to do so.
Note: Could SA congregations please wait to hold Communion services until they receive word from Bishop David Altus on the Medical advice he is expecting from the SA Government.
If you are unsure about this advice, or want further details or confirmation, please contact your District Office or Bishop.
Some weeks ago, in an early COVID-19 Update eNews, I encouraged congregations to think and plan for the day they can return to their worship spaces. This day, we pray, is gradually approaching, but in slow, deliberate stages. What a great opportunity this is for us to create space, think deeply, pray, and appreciate how God blesses us every step along the way. Going through this, and going through it well, we will come out of it as a stronger, more mature, deeply enriched people of God, ready to follow him and to serve.
May our Good Shepherd bless and encourage you, as you respond in your local situation, care for each other, and continue worshipping, whether privately, virtually, or in shared physical space.
Your brother in Christ,
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
14 May 2020
[i] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Pe 1:3–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[ii] This list is specific to Australia. New Zealand requirements may vary.
[iii] If you require individual cups, you can order from Australian Christian Resources, https://www.shopacr.com.au/, 1300 36 75 75, or another supplier.